Phoenix Police Arrest About 10 People a Day for Marijuana Possession; Some Charged With Other Crimes

The 2010 Arizona Medical Marijuana Act exempts qualifying patients from prosecution, but most Arizonans are still subject to arrest for felony possession of any amount of marijuana.

Phoenix police alone arrest an average of about 10 people a day on suspicion of possession of marijuana.

Phoenix police arrested 2,972 adults and 600 juveniles on suspicion of marijuana possession from July 1, 2011 to June 30, 2012. That's nearly 3,600, or about 9.8 a day, each day of the year.

All were booked into jail, says a Phoenix PD crime analyst. Update: The analyst later got back to us and clarified that while all the adults were booked into jail, less than one-third of the juveniles were booked. More than 400 juveniles were cited and sent home to parents or guardians.

See also: Teen Use of Marijuana Decreased Since Passage of Arizona Medical-Pot Law, Study Shows

Possession of any amount of marijuana is a felony in Arizona, though offenders typically are offered the chance to plead guilty to a misdemeanor.

The Phoenix arrest figures show that despite the movement toward freedom for marijuana users seen in states with medical-pot laws, like Arizona, and states in which it's legal for adult use, namely Colorado and Washington, local police are still expending an enormous amount of resources on small pot busts.

Some percentage of those -- we're not sure how many -- were charged with crimes in addition to possession.

A look at three days' worth of drug-offender mugshots on the Maricopa County Sheriff's Office web site, which includes people arrested by other Valley police agencies, suggests that about 50 percent of time, police alleged other crimes besides marijuana possession. (Take a look if you want to double-check us.) Cops often pick up people for shoplifting, assault, what have you, and the fact that the person also has marijuana in his or her pocket makes the bust better.

The other half have done nothing but possess marijuana and the paraphernalia in which to smoke it, like rolling papers.

Other Valley agencies are also busy busting suspected pot users; Phoenix happens to be the largest Valley city, with about 1.5 million people, and is demographically diverse.

If Phoenix is booking into jail about five people a day for nothing but marijuana possession, and states like Colorado and Washington legalizing adult use of pot, the question naturally comes up:

Is all that enforcement worth the money and effort?

Or would it be better for society as a whole to end marijuana prohibition, as Colorado and Washington did, and focus on dangerous drugs like meth or victim-crimes like burglaries, unsolved murders, or impaired driving?

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Ray Stern has worked as a newspaper reporter in Arizona for more than two decades. He's won numerous awards for his reporting, including the Arizona Press Club's Don Bolles Award for Investigative Journalism.
Contact: Ray Stern